Cyberterrorism makes good copy but less sense

Scare stories might be good for business but who really benefits?

You shouldn't be reading this. If certain high-profile predictions come true, today will see an online jihad. Islamic cyberterrorists will slay Web sites in their thousands. Your favourite online destinations will be replaced by smoking ruins daubed with obscenities: businesses will fail and anarchy reign.

Still here? So are we. Just like last time, and the time before that.

Cyberterrorism is almost a contradiction in terms. You instil terror in people by blowing things up, not taking networks down. We've all suffered from online vandalism, and many have been hit by fraud, extortion and plain old theft. Nasty they are, terrorism they are not.

It suits some people to describe any threat in the worst, most lurid terms. Some revel in the exposure such statements give them, while others realise that a state of nervous paranoia is good for business. The media is often complicit in this: scaremongering headlines are nothing new, but the Net has made it all too easy for a bad idea to gain global momentum.

There are simple ways for analysts, reporters and readers alike to check for realities behind the hype. What is the source -- is it credible, with a track record of getting it right in the past? Are the threats described precise and detailed, or are they invocations of a handy bogeyman? Perhaps the best touchstone is an idea so old the Romans used it -- cui bono, who gains? Follow the money, hacks mutter as they chase a story: find out who's going to benefit before deciding what's really going on.

Fortunately, the same Web that gives us all easy access to a thousand dodgy claims delivers industrial doses of reality-flavoured scepticism. Sites like vmyths.com and snopes.com perform the invaluable service of remembering when past scares turned out to be nothing more substantial than malformed supposition. More people should read them more often.

There are genuine threats out there, in the real world as well as the virtual. We can only identify them, and protect ourselves, if we keep a clear head and a cool, questioning attitude. Facts are sacred: hype is profane.

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